The recent surge of unprecedented extremist violence in northern India has brought calls for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's government to pursue a more effective and sustained strategy to resolve the Sikh problem. Many Indian analysts and diplomats believe Mr. Gandhi should adopt a two-pronged approach - combining an effort to improve security with a concerted push for political negotiations.
``It is a law-and-order problem requiring tough measures,'' analyst Bharat Wariavwalla says. ``But at the same time, Gandhi has to make sure that these measures are politically acceptable to the people of Punjab.''
However, last week's bloody attacks by suspected Sikh extremists, which left at least 74 persons dead in Punjab and Haryana states, appear to have weakened Gandhi's resolve to pursue a political settlement in the immediate future. Yesterday, two suspected Sikh separatists killed four people in an attack on a Punjab State electricity board office, bringing to 138 the total deaths in extremist-related violence this month.
Some opposition politicians and newspaper editorials have stepped up pressure for tougher security measures. Recently Gandhi indicated that a political dialogue could not take place ``until terrorism was completely stamped out in the state.''
But critics contend that mere additions to strength are not enough. They urge the Gandhi government to heal the rift between the Sikh community and India's Hindu majority through gestures of conciliation that would not compromise the government's hard security stance.
One gesture they are urging Gandhi to carry out is the 1985 peace accord he signed with slain Sikh moderate Harchand Singh Longowal. The agreement contained some concessions to the Sikhs, including the allocation to Punjab of the capital of Chandigarh, shared jointly with Haryana. But this transfer, a central ingredient of the accord, was reportedly blocked by members of Gandhi's Congress (I) party who were concerned about an electoral defeat in Haryana. Congress (I) subsequently lost the state elections last month.
In 1985, Gandhi jubilantly declared that the relatively peaceful state election in Punjab had ``crushed'' Sikh extremists, as the moderate Akali Dal party took power. His conciliatory approach was hailed as the first step toward meeting Sikh demands for political autonomy and economic benefits.
Sikhs, who make up 2 percent of India's nearly 800 million people, have felt increasingly alienated from the mainstream of Indian society since the Army raid on the Sikh's Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984. The Army attacked the shrine in a bid to rout armed extremists holed up there. It was in 1983 that Sikh extremists escalated their violent campaign for a separate homeland, to be called ``Khalistan'' (land of the pure). The victims of last week's violence were mostly Hindus. In Punjab, the country's richest state, Sikhs have a slight majority over Hindus.
But in less than two years, the Akali Dal government, led by Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala is in shambles, replaced by ``president's rule'' (direct federal rule from New Delhi).
Many analysts agree that Gandhi's government should have taken stronger action in curbing terrorism with the imposition of president's rule in May, following the report by Punjab's governor that the Barnala administration was incapable of dealing with the worsening law-and-order problem. The report cited evidence that elements of the Akali Dal government were supporting militant Sikhs and interfering with police efforts. Under Punjab's hard-hitting police chief, Julius Ribeiro, security forces appeared to have made some progress in rounding up suspects in the last two months.
The respected India Today magazine in a recent issue recommended that the government resolve the basic demands of the Sikh groups such as:
The release of detainees in Jodhpur who have been jailed since 1984.
Provide jobs for unemployed Sikh youth through labor-intensive and agro-based industries in rural areas.
Investigate abuses by security forces and compensation to families of innocent persons killed by police.
Analysts have repeatedly encouraged Gandhi to take what they say is the most logical step as a statesman: visit Punjab and talk to the people in the most conciliatory tone. ``This is one move he should have taken very early on,'' a Western diplomat says.
Mr. Wariavwalla says, ``He should try and address people in Punjab, make an emotional pitch to everyone and tell them their lives are just as important as anyone else's in the country. Therefore, at the same time that the government lends a firm hand, he is prepared to negotiate with people to restore democracy.''
In the absence of such gestures, analysts say, the political vacuum in Punjab encourages sympathy for extremists, even as the attacks drive Hindus out of the state. In towns near Amritsar, the Sikhs' religious capital, ``Sikh residents bitterly complain of police abuses and harassment,'' says a Sikh carpenter who recently visited his hometown in Punjab. Many Sikhs reportedly criticize security forces for staging ``fake encounters'' with suspected Sikh extremists. They say these serve as a camouflage for shooting innocent civilians.